Toward a Unified Theory of Einstein's Life

Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.

In 1921, during a seemingly endless reception in his honor in Washington, Albert Einstein said to the diplomat next to him, “I've just developed a new theory of eternity.” That quip came to mind after two new Einstein biographies, which together total more than 1,000 pages, thudded on my doorstep.

Walter Isaacson, a biographer and former executive at CNN and Time, and Jürgen Neffe, a German science journalist, resemble guests who show up, clutching champagne bottles, for a party that has just ended. At least a dozen books on Einstein were published in 2005, the 100th anniversary of his five revolutionary papers on relativity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Einstein's “miraculous year” was also celebrated in countless conferences, museum exhibits, and articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers. I contributed a couple of essays to The New York Times and spoke at an event about relativity at my institution.

Drawing on newly available archives, Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2007) and Neffe's Einstein: A Biography, translated by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), flesh out what we already know about Einstein's out-of-wedlock child, who died in infancy; his coldness toward the child's mother, Mileva, and their two later, legitimate children, one of whom became schizophrenic; his infatuation with his cousin and second wife, Elsa, and her daughter Ilse; his late-life affair with a Soviet spy. They also provide new insights into Einstein's childhood obsession with compasses and light; his thought experiments with accelerating trains and elevators; his discovery and then rejection of quantum randomness; and his futile quest for a unified theory describing all of nature's forces.

Isaacson nonetheless feels compelled, as he should, to justify his decision to toss yet another Einstein book onto the pile of more than 500 already printed. It is our duty as good citizens, Isaacson suggests, to understand Einstein's scientific achievements, which underpin so much modern science and technology. Even more important, a close examination of Einstein's scientific genius may yield lessons that can help us in “this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity.” The emphasis, not surprisingly, is on Einstein's scientific career.

But when I look around the world today, I sense more of a need for political than for scientific guidance. And that is why I'm glad to have read the Isaacson and Neffe biographies, both of which gave me a much deeper appreciation of Einstein's remarkable intuition in political affairs.

Einstein has often been described as a kind of idiot savant: scientific savant, political idiot. “His genius is limited to science. In other matters he is a fool,” his supposed friend, the novelist and pacifist Romain Rolland, said.

Actually, as Isaacson and Neffe demonstrate, Einstein navigated the tumult of the 20th century with extraordinary grace. He weighed in on all the divisive isms of his time--communism, fascism, McCarthyism, capitalism, anti-Semitism, Zionism, racism--and, for the most part, history has confirmed his Solomonic choices. How many of his contemporaries have fared so well? How many modern opinion leaders will?

Einstein became a world-renowned figure almost overnight in 1919, after measurements by the British physicist Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse confirmed general relativity's predictions about how gravity should bend light. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” The New York Times exulted, “Einstein Theory Triumphs.” Ambivalent about his fame, Einstein nonetheless exploited it for the rest of his life to speak out on issues that mattered to him.

Horrified by the carnage of World War I, he pronounced himself a “militant pacifist.” He advocated a form of civil disobedience called the “two percent solution,” which assumed that nations could not wage war if just one out of every 50 men refused military service.

But Einstein abandoned pacifism in response to Nazism, the shoal upon which pacifism still founders. When Hitler began threatening his neighbors in 1933, Einstein declared that if he were Belgian, he would volunteer for military service “cheerfully in the belief that I would thereby be helping to save European civilization.”

Einstein considered himself a socialist throughout his life and deplored the callousness of capitalism. Initially he expressed cautious approval of the Soviet experiment, once remarking that “men like Lenin are the guardians and restorers of the conscience of mankind.” But he also warned that socialists and communists must reject violence and embrace democracy, “lest the old class tyranny of the right be replaced by a new class tyranny of the left.” He never denounced the Soviet Union, but he never visited it either, in spite of frequent invitations to do so, and he never joined the Communist Party.

A nonbelieving Jew, Einstein did not flaunt his Jewishness, but he also abhorred the notion that Jews should appease anti-Semites by assimilating. “The undignified mania of adaptive conformity,” he wrote, “among many of my social standing, has always been very repulsive to me.”

He had early doubts about the creation of Israel. He called the militant Zionist Menachem Begin a “terrorist,” and asserted that “without mutual understanding and cooperation with the Arabs, nothing will work.” No wonder then, that after offering Einstein the presidency of Israel in 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion fretted that if Einstein accepted, “we are in for trouble.” (Einstein declined, saying, “I am not the person for that and I cannot possibly do it.”

In 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning that the United States should attempt to build an atomic weapon lest the Nazis build one first. Einstein's advice helped to initiate the Manhattan Project. Ironically, the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover--who never trusted Einstein and kept copious files on him--excluded him from the project. “In view of [his] radical background,” one unsigned FBI document stated, “this office would not recommend the employment of Dr. Einstein on matters of a secret nature.”

After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein regretted his fateful letter to Roosevelt. “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger,” he said. His self-castigation seems harsh, given that in 1939 it seemed quite plausible that Werner Heisenberg and other German physicists might design an atomic weapon.

But for the rest of his life, Einstein tried to atone for his sin by arguing that the United States should yield its nuclear weapons and knowledge to a “supranational entity.” Indeed, he believed that humanity would achieve permanent peace only if nations surrendered their sovereignty to a global governing body that adjudicated conflicts. Does anybody have a better idea?

As World War II gave way to the cold war, Einstein became increasingly disturbed by anti-Communist paranoia in his new nation (he had become a U.S. citizen in 1940). “America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the hysterical hunt for the few Communists that are here,” he wrote.

During the McCarthy era, even his admirers rebuked him for urging noncooperation with federal committees trolling for Communists. “To employ unnatural and illegal forces of civil disobedience, as Professor Einstein advises,” The New York Times harrumphed, “is in this case to attack one evil with another.” Bertrand Russell retorted to the Times: “You seem to think that one should always obey the law, however bad. I am compelled to suppose that you condemn George Washington and hold that your country ought to return allegiance to Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.”

Einstein took other courageous stances. He advocated sex education, and he defended the rights of women to have abortions, of homosexuals to live in peace, of blacks to receive equal treatment with whites. He backed up his words with actions. In 1937, when the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to give a room to the black singer Marian Anderson, Einstein put her up at his home.

Isaacson and Neffe provide divergent assessments of Einstein's final years. Neffe contends that Einstein felt increasingly isolated in the United States, once complaining, “I made a mistake in selecting America as a land of freedom.” But Isaacson persuades me that Einstein “was saved from serious despair by his wry detachment and his sense of humor. He was not destined to die a bitter man.”

Throughout his life, Einstein escaped the messiness of personal and public affairs by taking refuge in physics. He pursued the elusive unified field theory to the end, even scribbling a few equations on his deathbed.

Which biography is better? Neffe treats his subject with a brusqueness that Einstein himself might have appreciated. Isaacson would not repeat, as Neffe does, the remark of an acquaintance of Einstein that he “loved women, and the commoner and sweatier and smellier they were, the better he liked them.” Neffe is also more adept at explaining Einstein's influence on modern researchers, including string theorists, cosmologists, and explorers of the oddities of quantum mechanics.

Isaacson at times becomes too reverential toward the man he calls a “reverential rebel,” but his narrative flows more seamlessly. Moreover, I appreciated his effort to find commonalities between Einstein's political and scientific sensibilities. In both realms, Isaacson notes, Einstein was motivated by resistance to authority and conformity, sensitivity to facts rather than dogma, passion for simplicity, and consistency. “As in science, so it was in world politics for Einstein: He sought a unified set of principles that could create order out of anarchy.”

George Bush allegedly seeks moral guidance by asking, “What would Jesus do?” We've seen where that gets us. Perhaps politicians should ask, “What would Einstein do?” Einstein would have been horrified at the cult of personality implicit in the question, but that's just another reason for asking it.

Selected Works

McSweeney's Books, 2012.
With Reverend Frank Geer. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Hutchinson. Brown Trout, 2002. Royalties go to Help the Afghan Children Inc.
Misc. Writings
Review of The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2011
Review of The Information by James Gleick, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2011
Review of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2010.
Review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2010
Review of "The Shallows," by Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010.
Article in Slate, Aug. 4, 2009
Review of "Year Million," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2008
Neuroscientific critique of the Singularity, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, June 2008.
Article in Discover Magazine, April 2008
Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.
A report on "mystical technologies" for inducing religious experiences, Slate, April 26, 2007.
Q&A with Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, National Geographic, February 2007.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science for Discover, October 2006.
Review of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006.
Essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
Essay in the New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006.
Review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York Times Book Review, December 18, 2005
Profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
An essay inspired by the Centennial of Einstein's revolutionary papers on relativity and quantum mechanics. New York Times, August 12, 2005
Researchers have found evidence for the controversial "grandmother-cell" theory. Discover, June 2005.
An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005
An essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 12, 2004
Cover story for Discover Magazine, October 2004.
A critique of Buddhism, published online by Slate ( February 12, 2003.
Published in Discover Magazine, February 2003. A profile of the Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern and his five-year study of peyote use by members of the Native American Church.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 31, 2002.
An essay published on the oped page of the New York Times Christmas Day, 2002.
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Outtakes from Rational Mysticism (published here only)
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?, with digressions on Yogi Bhajan and Amrit Desai.